Strategies For Admissions Success At Harvard, Stanford GSB & Wharton

My Fortuna Admissions colleagues and I recently participated in an online strategy session hosted by P&Q Editor-In-Chief John A Byrne on ways to maximize your chances of admissions success to HBS, GSB, and Wharton. It was a lively and candid conversation across several topics, including what the very top MBA programs are looking for, how to stand out in a highly competitive pool of applicants, Round strategy, common mistakes, and a timeline for application planning.

The range of thoughtful follow-up questions we received inspired this follow up post, as so many of the concerns are relevant to other candidates – from how to position your H-S-W application as an older applicant to the utility of visiting a class, positioning a failed startup or framing a common background.

Below are nine of the questions we received after our H-S-W webinar, along with our best advice:

1. How do the M7 schools evaluate older applicants (approx. 30-32 years old)? Particularly those with non-traditional backgrounds (e.g., coming from the public sector) – do we have any shot at getting into Stanford, Harvard or Wharton?

As an older applicant for the GSB, HBS or Wharton (where the average age is 27-28) you will have to make a very strong case for why you want the MBA and why now. Broadly speaking, schools are looking for applicants at an earlier stage in their careers, which is perceived to be when the MBA has the greatest opportunity for maximum impact. Your career vision will need to be very well researched and thought through, and it will be important to make sure your “career narrative” makes sense—what have you done thus far in your career? What transferrable skills do you bring to the table? How will you combine these with the MBA to achieve your goals?

Be sure to make clear the types of opportunities that you will pursue an internship and post-MBA and that they truly credible given your stage in your career. Pursuing a role as a consultant or investment banker might be a hard sell, for example, as those firms will be looking for younger applicants who are willing to start at the bottom and work the long, hard hours.

Coming from a non-traditional background, this narrative can often make sense. If you come from the public sector, for example, and are looking for a way to transition to the private sector, this is an understandable reason to pursue an MBA. And if you’ve had great leadership experience in a non-traditional field, this can be very attractive to the schools as they look to round out their classes with distinctive voices and experiences. In these cases, they will want to make sure that you have the quant skills for a rigorous program, so the GMAT and any other testament to your quant abilities will be important (GPA in a STEM major, recommendations, specific experience).

Bottom line, you absolutely have a chance but you will need to work hard to prove it!

2. What are my chances with H-S-W if I’m a 35-year old applicant?

Thirty-five is on the older end of applicants, and the same advice that we gave to the 32-year-old applicant applies, but even more so. In the words of my Fortuna colleague Judith Silverman Hodara, “But talent is talent, and older applicants who can make a powerful case for why the MBA and why now – along with a well-reasoned and compelling career vision, competitive quants, an impressive track record and a clear sense of fit with the school – are still very much in the running. And if that’s you, then it’s possible you’re better-positioned than the 20-something wunderkind.” Check out her excellent article on the topic of How to Improve Your Odds if You’re 30+, which is full of practical tips on positioning your application as an older applicant.

3. Any advice for someone with a very common background (IB then PE) whose career has advanced in a very specific industry? Should I focus on my work for an oil & gas portfolio company even if it’s not indicative of my headline role?

Having both a finance background AND deep industry expertise can be very compelling, especially if your career vision involves working in a leadership/management role in that industry post MBA. Schools are looking for applicants who have a clear career vision, and transitioning from banking into the industry, especially into an industry where you have had significant exposure, makes a lot of sense. If you can show that you have a deep understanding of the trends influencing your chosen industry and can identify the types of opportunities you would pursue your internship and post-MBA job, it will strengthen your case (not to mention that you likely already have a good network in this industry). You will then just need to make sure that the schools understand how the MBA will actually help you achieve your goals (do you even need an MBA to make the transition?).

4. What is considered a ‘good GPA’ for b-schools?

As we discussed in the webinar, there is no simple answer to this question, as none of the schools will evaluate your GPA in isolation. They will take many factors into account: the relative difficulty of the degree you pursued, the quality of the undergraduate institution and other extenuating circumstances.  They will look at your transcript both to understand how you did in your chosen major, but also to get a feel for your intellectual curiosity (what types of courses outside your degree did you take?). Your progression over the years will also be taken into account (did you start slow and end on a high, or vice versa?). And, of course, they will look at the GPA in relation to your GMAT and work experience. That being said, you can get an idea of where the bar might be set by looking at the average undergraduate GPAs published by the schools (Wharton 3.6, HBS 3.7, GSB 3.7).

While your GPA is can’t be enhanced, your positioning and candidacy certainly can be. My Fortuna colleague Matt Symonds offers some great insights on this in his Forbes article, “

5. How are applicants from Africa evaluated? I see there aren’t a lot of Africans in top business schools.

It is true that Africans are underrepresented at many of the top business schools, and if you are a qualified African candidate this can be a great advantage, especially if you have shown you have the potential to go back to Africa and take a leading role in an organization or country. Africans will be evaluated just as all other candidates are, in terms of intellectual rigor, community involvement and leadership potential. You will not be expected to have had the same opportunities as someone from, say, the US. But you WILL be expected to show that you have taken maximum advantage of the opportunities that you have had. Once you prove that you have the qualities the schools are looking for, your challenge will be to show that you are at the very top of your peer group, which will be other Africans or even candidates from other under-represented geographies.

6. I am an IT Leader with 18 years of experience who is exploring HBS GMP (General Management Program). What are the benefits and how can it help advance my career?

When evaluating a program such as HBS GMP each situation is different. A program like GMP will certainly be a stimulating – even life-changing – experience that will help you tremendously if you plan to transition from leading an IT department to a more general management role. It will give you confidence and expertise in areas where you may not have had much exposure (finance, marketing, human resources), which are all essential if you want to play a larger role in leading an organization.

In most cases, executives who have been identified as high potential are sponsored by their companies, which makes the decision fairly simple. However, if you are evaluating whether or not you should pursue this opportunity on your own, it is important to clarify what your career goals are, and how the program will help you achieve these goals. Are you planning to stay in your current organization? Will they put a value on this program and will it open opportunities that you might not have had by simply working your way up the ladder? Or are you thinking of changing organizations? If so, what are your target organizations, and will they put a value on the program? Or are you happy in your role as an IT leader?

If you are considering this move, it is a great time to do some self-assessment and career vision exercises to help you clarify your goals and how the GMP might fit. For a helpful starting point, check this two-part series on Crafting a Compelling Career Vision for Your MBA Application, which offers tips on getting started as well as specific examples for writing your long term vision and short term goals.

7. Does being a startup founder during undergrad differentiate me, regardless of its success?

Founding a start-up can be helpful but a lot will depend on the details. If you started a business selling T-shirts with friends and made $20,000 before the thing folded, it will be different than if you built an app from scratch, raised $500,000 from angel investors, hired a team and got some significant traction before failing. Unfortunately, being involved in a start-up is not terribly unique amongst applicants, so in order for it to work in your favor ideally, you want to show some significant leadership experience in the process.

If you have a successful career in another industry (i.e., consulting or banking) and you have an entrepreneurial venture in your background, it can be helpful in differentiating you from your peers. A start-up during undergraduate will most likely be seen more as an extracurricular that will help to round out your current experience rather than as a significant part of your work experience.

8. What if my trajectory compared to my peers isn’t necessarily that high/fast, but that is what I am hoping to boost with an MBA?

That is going to be a hard sell, especially for GSB, HBS, and Wharton. These schools, as arguably the top three, have their pick of the world’s best candidates. They believe that future potential is best predicted by past success, so if you have not yet proven that you have this potential, they will be more likely to go with someone who has demonstrated it already. As we discussed, recommendations are key in evaluating your potential, so if your recommenders are not able to place you in the top % of your peers, the admissions committee will be unlikely to take a chance on you when they have other, highly recommended candidates.

9. How useful is a class visit? Is it strategic, and can it help my chances?

I do believe a class visit improves your chances, but not because the schools secretly “require” this.  All schools want you to be able to articulate why you want/need an MBA, and specifically why you need an MBA from their school. While you can do a lot of research online and talk to alums, there’s really no replacement for attending a class and immersing yourself in the campus and its culture. A visit to the school will help you understand on a much deeper level what the school has to offer and may help you to identify aspects of the program that are specific to your career goals, which will be important to identify in the application and essays.

That being said, for applicants who live far away, a class visit can be challenging, both from a time and a financial perspective. Attending information sessions and meeting with alumni in your geography can be a great backup if traveling to the schools is not an option for you.

View a recording of the full webinar for more success strategies on applying for Harvard, Stanford GSB or Wharton.


Fortuna-AdmissionsHeidi Hillis is an expert coach at MBA consulting firm Fortuna Admissions, as well as a Stanford GSB alum & former MBA admissions interviewer. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.